Journey to the roof of Africa

What was the one highlight of the trek for you, Juraj (or TingĀ as she corrected me) asked the group, on our last evening meal in camp. Certainly not reaching the summit – Jeff and I got to 100m below the summit, to Stella Point at 5756m. We would have made the summit if we’d gone on another 0.5km, gritted our teeth through another hour. But by that point, Jeff’s oxygen levels were dangerously low, and I was over it and dreading the slide downhill back to base camp.

In any case, taking the obligatory photos at the summit were not the highlight for Juraj and Ting either. The view wasn’t much too different from where we had parted ways.

I think, for all of us, there wasn’t one particular highlight. Certainly not the interminable slog up from base camp at midnight. That was the singular hardest and longest night of my life. It was beautiful looking up at the trail of lights from headlamps slowing snaking up the mountain in the dark, while the stars twinkled overhead. At times, when the clouds below parted, we could also see the distant yellow lights from the city of Moshi far, far below, where people slept soundly and snugly in their warm beds. Most of the time though, we kept our eyes firmly on the round spot of light from our headlamps, which were trained on the boots of the person in front of us.

It was too cold, too windy, and the air too thin, to appreciate the beauty of the night. We had all wrapped ourselves up in multiple layers. Two pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, three layers of jackets, beanie, two pairs of gloves. But still the biting wind cut through. It seemed an eternal struggle between stopping to gasp for air and shiver from the cold, or trying to fight off the building lactic acid in our legs and push on.

Groups passed us. We passed guides helping clients back down the mountain, seemingly before we had barely started on the trail. We passed people who keeled over suddenly to retch, passed people slumped over by piles of rocks, unable to get up on their own accord. I couldn’t see my watch under all my layers of jackets, but I concentrated hard on just putting one foot ahead at a time, and tried to estimate the minutes until sunrise.

I was never happier when I looked up to see the thin sliver of the waning moon rise above the clouds, the yellow crescent a sure and welcome precursor to the rising sun. And finally, finally, after five miserable hours in the dark, we could see the start of a band of indigo light up the clouds, which slowly broadened and turned orange and pink.

A most glorious sight, one of which I shall have to commit to memory, since I was too cold and tired to want to struggle to get out my camera. But the sense of relief was so sweet.

Making our way gingerly back down from Stella Point to Base Camp

So, while there wasn’t one highlight, as I reflected on the trip, and especially as I gave more thought to the question when I got up at 230am for my last night pee at altitude, what I appreciated was being out there in nature. To have been able to walk through the drastically different climate zones that Mount Kilimanjaro had to offer – from the wet and humid rainforest to the moorland, to the Alpine desert and finally the arctic zone, it was pretty special.

It was pretty special to ring in the new year on the mountain too. Not that any of us were particularly planning to stay up till the Tanzanian midnight to countdown to 2019. We had already marked the Sydney new year and the Singapore new year earlier. But my bladder, and the brief but rousing cheer of the porters woke me up right at midnight. I crawled out of my tent to find that the earlier fog and clouds had cleared, and I could see a sky full of stars overhead and even the snowy outline of the summit in the background. I exchanged greetings with a couple of the guides and porters in the vicinity, and with Juraj, and snapped a few astro shots to mark the occasion.

Ringing in the new year at Barranco Camp, alpine desert environment

2018 seemed long and short at the same time. Long, because we had packed quite a lot into the 12 months. Moved from Sydney to London and then to Singapore, and then we each visited another total of 6 other countries. Short because time seemed to flash right by.

But back to Kilimanjaro: we had a great experience. It wasn’t a vacation by any means, and frankly, after back to back trips like this and the kayak marathon, I am looking forward to a warm and relaxing vacation by the beach. A bit of snorkeling, kayaking, and sleeping in hammocks under the stars.

Our guide Francis, leading us to Big Tree Camp on Day 1 of the trek through the rainforest zone
The clouds mostly dispersed when I crawled out of the tent in the middle of the night for a toilet break at Shira 1 camp – see our private toilet tent in the left foreground; best decision ever since we didn’t have to trek in the darkness of night to the public stalls, which, let’s just say, have seen tons of use…
Sunrise at Shira 1 camp, marking day 3 of our trek. Our dining tent is the bright green one in the middle
Night view of Moshi city miles below on Jan 1, at Karanga camp. Day 5 of trek
Long walk through the alpine desert on Day 6 to Barafu camp

One big bonus – after going through countless pairs of hiking boots and even more blisters and a few lost toenails, I finally landed on a pair of boots that fit like a dream. The lady at Campus Corner in Singapore who sized me up, placed my feet on insoles two sizes larger than my usual boots and pronounced them perfect to go. And indeed they were. Perfect. Not a single blister after 100km on Mt Kili! To think that I had almost normalized wincing everytime I accidentally kicked my old boots against my hiking pole!

Day hike of Seven Sisters – Seaford to Birling Gap

I checked off the iconic walk of the Seven Sisters down by Brighton on a brilliantly blue early summer day.

Headed down to Seaford by train, an easy 2 hour ride from London. From the train station, I walked across the small town to the Seaford Head Golf Course, where the sight of the imposing white chalk cliffs falling into the ocean took my breath away.

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap2

For a short way along the trek, I walked alongside a local, an old man who is a regular plyer of the walk, often with a sandwich bag in hand. We chatted about the unusual but welcome spell of sunny and cool days in Britain (jet streams that veered off the island carrying rain instead to Bordeaux); the wildflowers that sprouted up on the path through the different seasons; the geographic significance of the coast during WWII etc.

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Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap4
The kindly old man I walked a distance with pointed out the WWII Spitfire that flew overhead. “You can always tell a Spitfire by the purring of its Rolls Royce engine”, he said, reminding me of the character of the civilian captain in the movie Dunkirk

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap5

The official Seaford to Birling Gap walk has the walker turning back inland along the Cuckmere River when they reach Cuckmere Haven, the stretch of beach that connects to the actual Seven Sisters walk. But I was lazy to wander back inland and to the town of Exceat just to cross the river stream. It was mid tide, and the channel at the mouth, although fast moving, looked shallow enough. So I bid farewell to my lovely companion, took off my socks and shoes and rolled up my pants, and waded across the pebbly stream.

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There are WWII bunkers that dot the beach. But, as the old man I walked with said, Hitler was not a student of history and did not learn from Napoleon’s mistakes. Instead of landing and attacking Britain while he could, he instead turned the German army against Russia. Thank goodness for that.

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Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap9

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap10

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap11

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap12

Seven Sisters - Seaford to Birling Gap13

Such a gorgeous stretch of coast. šŸ˜ Though the hills looked tiringly steep from a distance, I felt like I got up and over each “sister” in no time at all, distracted as I was by the lush green fields and blue ocean beyond.


Moonrise and sunrise over Uluru

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On our Australian bucket list: Uluru, theĀ famous monolith rising from the otherwise flat landscape of the scrabby central Australian outback. We got that checked off this past weekend when we joined Mulgas Adventures for a 4-day/3-night camping trip.

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I have to admit – right after booking the trip, I kicked myself for choosing, of all dates, the weekend of the full moon. One of my main motivations for visiting the outback had beenĀ to soak in the grand sight of the milky way spilling across the unpolluted night sky. Ah well, lemonade: we got to watch the moon rise by the glowing Uluru at sunset. That was quite a treat in itself too.

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The other thing about camping under the full moon though, is that it really is very bright. We slept in swags in the open, and I had to bury myself in my sleeping bag to escape the glare!

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But in the outback, the weather changes really quickly. Though we had watched the sunset under clear blue skies, by the time we awoke in the pre-dawn darkness, voluminous clouds had already moved in. The rains held though, and we were treated to a spectacular sunrise.

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Uluru Outback-

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Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi NSW


We made it down to Sculpture by the Sea, Ā the last day of the exhibition. Everyone had warned us about the crowds, so we decided to go right at sunrise. There were still quite a number of people milling about, all armed with tripods.

To be honest, I had more fun taking pictures of just the landscape, than of the sculptures. So after a while, I put my camera away, and found that I could better appreciate the sculptures themselves, rather than fruitlessly rack my brains to find a perspective of the sculptures against the raging ocean unique from the dozen other photographers crouched around them.